It takes time to wrap your head around education reform. The vocabulary is daunting: Common Core, charter schools, VAM, high stakes testing, Race to the Top. And just when you think you’ve mastered the material, you realize that the details don’t matter because the education reform debate is being driven by money. First you have the poor people who don’t have enough money to send their kids to school with a full stomach. Secondly, a handful of philanthropists has distorted the reform debate by placing far too much money on the table.
The school reform issue boils down to a simple question: who is responsible for low student achievement? Should we blame a society with a remarkably high tolerance for poverty; or should we blame educators and administrators who blame poverty for their poor performance?
There are good, well-intentioned people on both sides of the education debate. The folks driving the reform agenda want poor kids to get the high quality education they deserve. That’s true of Arne Duncan, the former CEO of the Chicago school system who now heads the Department of Education. It’s true of the folks running the philanthropic institutions funding the move to charter schools and high stakes testing: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Everybody in the conversation wants to make things better for America’s poorest children, no question.
Unfortunately, because they have misdiagnosed the problem, their solutions aren’t working and will never work.
Our schools aren’t failing–our schools in low-income neighborhoods are failing. If you take poverty out of the equation, American schools stack up very well against the international competition. Our top 10% do very well in head-to-head competition with the top 10% from any country on the planet. The top 60% of our school population are also highly competitive.
Unfortunately, a quarter of the American public school students come from poor families, and it is these children who perform poorly on standardized tests. Because most of these kids come from families that don’t read much, they aren’t read to. They are surrounded by adults with stunted vocabularies. Abstract ideas are rarely discussed.
Problems are multiplied when the adults in the family have a limited command of the English language.
The stress associated with poverty leads to unusually high levels of domestic violence and child abuse.
It isn’t polite to mention these things, I realize, but they exist whether we mention them or not.
Sure, plenty of kids emerge from poverty relatively unscathed; a few even graduate from Ivy League universities. But the occasional success story doesn’t alter the predominant reality.
And here’s the dirty little secret: these children will do poorly on standardized tests no matter who is teaching and what is being taught.
We can do better, no question. If we place our very best teachers in high-need classrooms; if we limit class sizes; if we involve parents in the educational process; if we make counseling services available to students and their families, we can maximize outcomes.
But children growing up in high-poverty neighborhoods will never live up to the stellar expectations we have set for them. On average, they will never perform at grade level.
Not all teachers are equally gifted, of course. This is true in public schools, charter schools and private schools. If, like Finland, we raised entrance standards and paid our teachers as well as doctors and attorneys, we would see a gradual rise in teacher quality. But if we blame poverty-related problems on teachers, complain about the power of teacher’s unions, and deride hard working professionals for problems they did not create, we will make things much worse.
Children from poor families need teachers who are motivated, appreciated and honored. When students, teachers and administrators internalize the disapproval of society everybody loses.
Unfortunately, so much money is being pumped into the school reform movement that the school debate has been skewed in fundamental ways. Major news outlets, for profit and non-profit, are receiving large grants from Gates, Board, Walton and a handful of smaller foundations so they can report on educational issues. These news outlets will not bite the hand that feeds them.
Politicians, Democrat and Republican, who receive generous campaign contributions from the companies that profit from the rapid privatization of education will go with the program.
So many people are benefiting from the privatization boom that nobody wants to admit the truth.
In the beginning, charter schools were organized by teachers and parents eager to improve outcomes for at-risk students. Some still are. But the steadily growing enthusiasm for charter schools is driven by ideological confusion and an appetite for huge profits.
Charter schools have not improved outcomes for our most needy students, and in some cases they have made things worse. In a recent study conducted by Stanford University, about a quarter of charters delivered better reading scores than public schools, more than half produced no improvement, and 19% showed worse results. In math, 29% of the charters delivered better math scores, while 40% showed no difference, and 31% fared worse.
Charter schools have much higher levels of teacher turnover and generally pay teachers substandard salaries while richly rewarding administrators and superintendents. For instance, Geoffrey Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and Eva Moskowitz, of the New York based Success Academy schools, are paid over half a million dollars annually.
The passion for school reform has been frustrated by a basic unwillingness to confront America’s poverty problem. We have decided, as a matter of public policy, to allow an enormous underclass to grow in our midst. The educational travail of millions of disadvantaged students is but one consequence of this decision. We blame our teachers so we don’t have to blame ourselves.
Education reform has always enjoyed bipartisan support. George W. Bush had his No Child Left Behind and Barack Obama has his Race to the Top. Bill Clinton avoided political ruin by blaming the poor for their poverty (he called it welfare reform). When Democrats buy into conservative assumptions, they get things done; but the heavily hyped cures invariably fizzle.
We will improve educational outcomes when we get real about poverty.
By design, this post is short on specifics and documentation. If you want to learn more about the subjects I have addressed, here, in no particular order, are a few places to start: